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Transits, Travels and Tribulations, III

J. Donald Fernie

A Second Chance

Time went by. The war with Britain ended. The 1769 transit began to loom, and before long Le Gentil was suggesting that he stay on and try again for observations from this part of the world. His latest calculations suggested that going to Manila in the Philippines would be preferable to Pondichery (now back in French hands), and he even considered heading for the Marianas Islands in the Pacific until he learned that ships only went there every three years. Not waiting for agreement from Paris, he seized the chance of passage on a Spanish ship bound for Manila. It was not until July 1767, a year later, that a reply from the Académie Royale des Sciences caught up with him there. It announced that they would prefer to see him go to Pondichery after all. As it happened, Le Gentil was encountering considerable hostility from the corrupt governor of Manila (soon to be jailed himself), who apparently disliked all French citizens on principle. He claimed Le Gentil's papers must be false, and Le Gentil soon sensed that if he did not soon get away, he would probably find himself in a Spanish jail, if not worse. Clandestinely, he left on a ship bound for Madras in February 1768. It was a nightmare voyage, navigating through the islands and straits of the South China Sea, where the captain and his two pilots argued interminably over which passage to head for. Their arguments were so violent that at times all three would storm off to their cabins and leave the helmsman to his own devices. The captain, noted Le Gentil, "was as little in condition to conduct his vessel as I am to lead an army." On the other hand, the pilots were "two old automatons to whom I would not have entrusted the conduct of a launch." Nevertheless, Le Gentil finally found himself in Pondichery on March 27, 1768, more than a full year ahead of the transit.

Here he was warmly welcomed by the French Governor, Monsieur Law, and an observatory was established for him amid the ruins of a once-palatial estate. In the recent war it had served as a gunpowder magazine. In fact, Le Gentil's observatory was built atop a vault containing "sixty thousand weight of powder." Even so, "this circumstance did not interrupt the course of my observation," said Le Gentil, announcing his pleasure at living and working there. Even the British sent over an excellent telescope from Madras in case it was needed. Le Gentil settled into regular astronomical work, in particular the all-important determination of his precise longitude and latitude.

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